August jobs data shows the unemployment situation improving : The Indicator from Planet Money The August unemployment numbers were better than expected. But doesn't mean the labor market is the picture of health.
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More Job Growth, But Slower

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More Job Growth, But Slower

More Job Growth, But Slower

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  • Transcript

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON, BYLINE: NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")

CARDIFF GARCIA, HOST:

Hey, everyone. Stacey and Cardiff here. This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. And today is Jobs Friday. And so we have been wondering if it's time to bring back an old celebratory tradition from Jobs Friday's past.

STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:

It's true.

GARCIA: Yeah, the air horn.

VANEK SMITH: The air horn, I know. We stopped blowing the jobs day air horn when the pandemic struck because things were so awful, and so many people were losing their jobs. So the question now is, I mean, have they improved enough that we should resume the tradition?

GARCIA: Yeah. I'm leaning yes - or at least yes-ish (ph)...

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter).

GARCIA: ...Because today the Bureau of Labor Statistics released the jobs report for the month of August, and it showed that the economy created 1.4 million new jobs last month. And the unemployment rate fell from 10.2% percent to 8.4% percent. That's the first time the unemployment rate has fallen below 10% - out of double digits - since the pandemic started. So we can at least say, Stacey, that the numbers are trending in the right direction.

VANEK SMITH: I mean, that's a good argument for, like, a relative air horn. But there...

GARCIA: Yeah.

VANEK SMITH: ...I mean, there's this, like, huge downside, as you know. I mean, first of all, remember that a lot of the money that was supporting the economy from the big stimulus bill started expiring at the end of July.

GARCIA: True.

VANEK SMITH: That was right before the data for today's jobs report was collected, so the report might not yet be capturing how that lost support will affect the labor market. And also, even though the labor market is improving, the pace of that improvement has actually slowed down. The number of jobs created was smaller in August than in July, and that is the second straight month there has been a decline in the number of jobs created.

GARCIA: Those are all excellent points, all true. I cannot argue with any of that. Things are definitely still not great. But I think I'm going to call it anyway, Stacey, just 'cause, like, we have missed air horn, you know?

VANEK SMITH: Oh, I don't know. I have mixed feelings. But I'll give it to you. Maybe we can modify it a little, like a relative air horn.

GARCIA: Like, a softer-than-usual air horn - whatever. Just give us the air horn. Give us the air horn.

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter).

GARCIA: Please, give us the air horn.

(SOUNDBITE OF AIR HORN SOUNDING)

GARCIA: Ah, that felt great, not going to lie.

VANEK SMITH: I do have to admit that was cathartic. It was nice.

GARCIA: Yeah (laughter). I think our three guests today are also excited about it.

VANEK SMITH: Yes. We have brought back our jobs day ninja squad - three economists - Nick Bunker, Martha Gimbel and Gbenga Ajilore, who analyze and break down the details of the jobs report every month like it's their job because, in many ways, you could say it is their job.

GARCIA: Yeah, it's a part of their job for sure. So after a quick break, Nick, Martha and Gbenga each are going to share with us one big takeaway from today's jobs report. And also, Stacey, as one of our three ninjas will remind us, today's Jobs Friday happens to coincide with the birthday of a very important musician. And that musician...

VANEK SMITH: Really?

GARCIA: ...Oh, yeah - is going to send us off into the long Labor Day weekend.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VANEK SMITH: OK. First up on our roster of jobs day ninjas is Nick Bunker. Nick is an economist at the Indeed Hiring Lab.

GARCIA: So, Nick, what are you choosing to highlight from today's jobs report?

NICK BUNKER: So the indicator that I want to focus on is the level of employment in August compared to what we saw back in February.

VANEK SMITH: February was the last month before the pandemic started devastating the U.S. labor market. So even though the labor market has improved in recent months, Nick says we need to go back to February to see how much improvement it still needs to make before it's back to where it was.

BUNKER: While we've had a few reports in a row now where we're adding millions of jobs, we're still down more than 11 million jobs than we saw back in February. So progress is being made, but the labor market is still in a really big hole.

GARCIA: To understand this another way, there are still 7.6% fewer jobs now than there were in February. And we can see how bad that is by comparing it to the damage that was caused by the Great Recession of 2008 and 2009, which, remember, was itself an absolutely horrible recession that took years to recover from. And back then, at the absolute bottom of the labor market in that recession, Nick points out, there were only 6% fewer jobs than before the recession started.

BUNKER: So the hit right now to the labor market is still larger than the worst period during the Great Recession.

GARCIA: A sobering thought about how long there is still left to go.

OK. Next up, our next job's day ninja is Martha Gimbel, who is senior manager of economic research at Schmidt Futures.

MARTHA GIMBEL: So my indicator from this jobs report is 50%. That is the percent decrease in employment that the motion picture and sound recording industry has experienced since February.

VANEK SMITH: Martha analyzed the employment situation in all the major economic industries, and the movie and music industry was the one with the most lingering damage from the pandemic. And she looked at other industries that are also really struggling to bounce back to see what they all had in common.

GIMBEL: Performing arts and spectator sports, scenic and sightseeing transportation and accommodation - a lot of these industries fall into leisure activities or travel activities. And I think it's really important to emphasize that these are jobs that we all want to be there on the other side of this. Like, I don't know about you. But at some point when this is over, I want to go see a movie. I want to go to a play. I want to take a trip.

GARCIA: Yeah, me too.

VANEK SMITH: Me too. Yeah, I know.

GARCIA: (Laughter). Martha says a lot of times people are too dismissive of workers in the arts, arguing that maybe they should get trained for a new job or that they should switch careers. This really bothers her. A lot of those workers have trained for years. And even the jobs that they often take to support themselves, as servers and bartenders, for example, have also been really hit hard by the pandemic.

GIMBEL: Whenever this is over, we want those people to be doing those jobs again. And so it's not as simple as just saying, well, they should all retrain and find new jobs, even if they could find new jobs. I also do want to point out the irony in all of us being dismissive about the real economic suffering that the arts industry is going through right now while we're all stuck at home watching everything that Netflix can give us.

VANEK SMITH: That is a really good point, I think. It's a really good point (laughter).

GARCIA: Yeah. I agree, you know? Maybe we should be more grateful.

VANEK SMITH: And now, Cardiff, you have promised us some kind of reveal here...

GARCIA: (Laughter).

VANEK SMITH: ...A musician who is celebrating a birthday today, apparently.

GARCIA: Yes.

VANEK SMITH: And I guess the person who is going to give us this final surprise is our third jobs day ninja, Gbenga Ajilore. He is a senior economist at the Center for American Progress, a think tank.

GBENGA AJILORE: This being Beyoncé's birthday and all, I'd be remiss not to talk about Black women's unemployment.

VANEK SMITH: Beyoncé, oh.

GARCIA: Yeah.

VANEK SMITH: Who doesn't want to celebrate the birthday of Beyoncé?

GARCIA: And on jobs day - what a great coincidence.

VANEK SMITH: I know.

GARCIA: Gbenga says the reason he is looking at the unemployment rate for Black women is that their struggles are especially indicative of what's happening to the labor market now and especially the struggles that a lot of parents are facing in juggling their work at the same time as watching their kids or taking care of elderly parents or relatives who are sick with COVID.

AJILORE: You look at childcare that - because childcare is not over, because schools are not reopening - that we have some sort of hybrid system or doing virtual learning - that the burden, the onus falls on women and especially Black women who tend to be head of households.

GARCIA: In August, the unemployment rate for Black women was still at an extremely high 12%. That's higher than the 10.5% unemployment rate for Hispanic women and much higher than the 7.3% unemployment rate for white women.

VANEK SMITH: And even though the August jobs report seems like it was pretty good overall, Gbenga was disappointed to see that the labor force participation rate for Black women did not increase.

AJILORE: And so what that says is that even though the economy is, quote-unquote, "recovering" that they are still out of the labor market because they have these other burdens, these other onuses that they have to take care of for the household.

GARCIA: These racial gaps have been persistent, Gbenga says. And it's important to keep in mind these details within the jobs report whenever we look at the overall economic picture and not forget them.

VANEK SMITH: We want to wish our listeners a restful and safe Labor Day weekend. And we asked Gbenga for a Beyoncé recommendation to close out the show.

AJILORE: Well, the jobs numbers and what's been happening has been kind of depressing. And so "Black Parade" is something that's pretty uplifting that I'd like to listen to.

VANEK SMITH: Yes, please.

GARCIA: Wish granted. Let's hear some "Black Parade" on the way out of the show.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLACK PARADE")

BEYONCÉ: (Singing) Honey, come around my way, around my hive. Whenever Momma says so, Momma say.

GARCIA: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Autumn Barnes and fact-checked by Brittany Cronin. Our editor is Paddy Hirsch, and THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLACK PARADE")

BEYONCÉ: (Singing) Talking slick to my folk, my folk. Lift that lip like lipo, lipo. You hear them swarming, right? Bees is known to bite. Now here we come on our thrones, sitting high. Follow my parade, oh, Black parade.

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